Green plastic army men were a perennial favorite. My older brothers had to order them from the back of comic books when they first came out. Originally introduced in the 1950's by Marx, they would order them from brightly colored ads in the back of the comic books. When I started collecting mine from the rack at the grocers they had hardly changed in design. I bet any one of us, whether we are 60 or 50 or 38 and holding could remember "crawling guy", "throwing the grenade guy"," minesweeper guy", and "bazooka guy", all in the classic cardinal green army style.
I enjoyed getting mine at the store but I envied Big Bro who got his hundreds of plastic soldiers delivered in a real footlocker (genuine U.S. made cardboard). Our dad's generation had to be content with conducting warfare with hobby shop metal soldiers which were purchased in limited numbers due to the price. We, the product of the consumer friendly late 60's and early 70's, could buy whole legions of little men to command. There were so many you didn't have to worry about losing one or two to the dog (he's got me Frank! Arghhhhh) or leaving one behind enemy lines when Mom called supper. You always had more. You knew that although there would be a skirmish that involved firecrackers and some Private inevitably losing his head, you had backups. Reliable, dependable.
Unlike most toys now, they were simple. Two to three inches tall, no moving parts, nothing painted or stuck on,but they didn't do real well in heat (Sargent Miller meets Colonel Soldering Gun didn't do so well). But they did hold up well, pretty bullet proof other than that.
Girl toys were OK, but for the cost of some silly Barbie dress I could get a bag of hundreds of soldiers to deploy after school got out for the day. And play we would.
Now it seems you have to push the kids out the door to get them to play outside. Not us, with a coat, some soldiers, and a couple of dogs, we watched carefully for that first break in the snow. We knew the signs that told us spring was almost here, that first slice of spring sun bursting from the sky, opening cold fissures in the landscape. Snow had been fun, but we were tired of the many days of snow, stampeding flurries of twenty below that swirled around the family home with all the spontaneous elegance of a brawl, keeping even the hardiest kid indoors. We couldn't wait to get out in the sun, with the landscape to ourselves. Out where entire wars were fought and domains were challenged, melting snowballs flying from the last remnants of snowy forts, ancient strategies drawn out with mittens on a battle plain of white and green as we gathered our troops around us.
Our imaginations were not provoked by PlayStations or GameBoys. Our play burst out of something within our own minds, shouting forth as we charged the next hill, darting past "throwing grenade guy" with "bazooka guy" to take another hill. To us, with the agile minds of children, it was all real.
We advanced until we reached the neighbor's yard, a pristine landscape where the war had not reached, where there would be no quarter given, where soldiers were not to pass and disobedience would be death. Step foot across that boundary and tear up Mrs. Copenhagen's prize flowers, and there would be no mercy. We stopped, gave our wounded some water from the hose and retreated back towards the house.
It had been a good battle. We lost some soldiers, yes, but the summer day flowed endlessly. We were immortal, the clouds rushing by faster than our troops could advance. Glorious days. Only the sound of the dinner bell would bring us in, dirty and hungry and aching to be outside again.
There's a playground which I pass on my way home, small, built at the edge of one of the subdivisions on the south edge of town. I rarely see children in it. Perhaps the kids have all grown up and moved. Perhaps they're indoors. Kids want to play electronic games, videos, TV, all of which capture their attention within the confines of a home. I look at photos of myself as a child and they were most often taken outdoors, we kids lean, muscled. I watch the kids as they leave the bus now that drives them a whole two blocks from school and many are already battling obesity. Young colts hobbled by an electronic rope, too many growing jaded before their time,.
Certainly, as children, we had our indoor activity. There were times when the cold and the rain kept even the range cattle looking for cover and for those days there were trains and books; fun learning about tools with Dad in his wood shop. Dad would set up Lionel trains in the garage and the joy of small plastic action figures would continue, Cowboys and Indians attacking the train, sometimes with some Army soldiers serving in the ranks.
The outdoors made us strong, made us self sufficient and capable. It made us search for something up ahead on that horizon, something we would not find in our room on a computer or on a PlayStation.
Back home recently and digging in Dad's yard to tend tend his vegetable garden for him, I unearthed a tiny plastic soldier, and that tiny battered warrior, recreated a flood of memory of childhood days when my brother and I played for world dominion out in the back yard. The touch of its small battered form brought back the scent of the earth in our back yard, the shade of the apple tree that sheltered us, the warmth of the sun.
Was this little figurine simply a forgotten toy or was he buried in some forgotten childhood military honor? Like anything long lost, he spoke to me of why we remember things and why they are important. I wrapped his green plastic form carefully in a tissue and brought him home, bringing him back past the eyes of TSA, one last covert mission to bring him home, where yes, games are still played.